Vancouver: It was during my posting as a staff reporter with The Tribune in Ferozepore, Punjab in 2001 when a school book came into my hand that asked the Class VIII students - which Sikh Guru had sent armies to Ayodhya to liberate Ram temple? The answer in this knowledge book was Guru Gobind Singh. The information had left me baffled. It was in reference to the tenth master of the Sikhs who had laid the foundation of the Khalsa, a militant force of the Sikhs to fight against repression. The army was raised from among the oppressed communities who were treated as untouchables by the caste Hindus to fight back against both caste system and the aggression of an Islamist government.
The problem with the question and the answer was that the information had no solid basis. The Sikh scholars and historians rejected it right away saying that it is a distortion of history.
This was the time when Akali Dal, a regional party of the Sikhs in Punjab was in power in the state and running the show with the support of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Incidentally, the two parties are again in power in Punjab. Under this government, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an ultra Hindu nationalist body had intensified its activities in the state. The BJP is a political arm of the RSS that wants to turn India into a Hindu state. They had started organizing camps in villages in Punjab around that time. I still remember that the Sikh participants in these drills were referred to as Keshdharis (the bearers of long hair) by the RSS men.
The book with a controversial question and a controversial answer was prescribed in schools run by the RSS which has always claimed that Babar, a Muslim Emperor had demolished the temple that once stood on the birthplace of Lord Ram, a revered Hindu god in Ayodhya and instead built a mosque to humiliate Hindus. Both the RSS and the BJP have always wanted to build a Ram temple at the disputed site. They demolished the mosque in 1992 and are now waiting for an opportune time to build a temple.
The information about Guru Gobind Singh having sent his armies to Ayodhya for the liberation of Ram Temple is part of the propaganda was to attract Sikh support in Punjab where they are in majority. Since the Sikh historians challenged the story, the trick had backfired. One of the towering Sikh priests, Prof. Manjit Singh told me categorically that there was no historical evidence to establish this.
But the story did not end there. The RSS has continuously been trying to rope in the support of Sikhs. Thanks to the Akali Dal, a staunch BJP ally there efforts have paid some dividends. The RSS has been able to make inroads in the minority Sikh community that hardly make two percent of the Indian population. The RSS run schools were getting funds from those in power, I gathered first hand from my own independent research during those years. Apart from the support of the Akali Dal-BJP government, the RSS Sikh agenda itself has confused many in the Sikh community for numerous reasons.
The main reason behind some Sikhs getting influenced by the RSS is purely ideological. The RSS has always treated Sikhs as part of the Hindu mainstream unlike Muslims and Christians. Their propaganda material reveals that they consider Hindus and Sikhs as one nation while Islam and Christianity as foreign religions. Their ideologue M.S. Golwalkar in his writings described the Sikhs as defenders of Hinduism.
The RSS has also formed a Sikh wing called Rashtriya Sikh Sangat that has been distorting history and playing on the fears of gullible section of Sikhs who mistrust Muslims due to lack of understanding of the history. Though Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism was born in a Hindu family, he rejected both the caste based oppression in Hinduism and excesses of the Islamist rulers. Yet, the RSS through its Sikh wing has been propagating how Nanak had stood against the persecution of Hindus by Babar. They continue to emphasize that Nanak’s main fight was against Islamists who had invaded Hindu nation, even as he had laid the foundation of a distinct religion that was different from Hinduism.
The RSS literature explicitly claims that the Sikh Gurus had stood for the protection of Hindu nation which is not true. They actually resisted against atrocities from both the Islamist rulers and the orthodox Hindu priests on poor and marginalized. Some articles published in SangatSansar, the publication of Rashtriya Sikh Sangat suggest that Sikh faith was born to protect Hindus from Muslim invaders and conveniently overlook the Gurus’ opposition of caste based oppression. Even if there is a mention of Sikhism’s opposition to casteism, it is negligible. One article reads that Guru Gobind Singh performed the duty of a Kshatriya, a warrior caste which is second to the Brahmins who are top in the caste hierarchy. Indeed, Guru Gobind Singh was born in a Kshatriya caste, but after the formation of the Khalsa he gave up his caste identity.
While the villainy of the Islamist rulers who fought with the Gurus is repeatedly highlighted in these articles, the treachery of some Hindus that led to the persecution of Gurus has been underplayed. It is important to know that in their fight for social justice, the Gurus had many Muslims on their side, while some Hindus sided with the Muslim emperors which only displays that this was a fight between an oppressive state and revolutionaries and wasn’t a Sikh versus Muslim conflict as is being projected by the RSS. Their prejudice towards the Muslims is so blatant that they are even critical of Akbar, a secularist Muslim emperor who was not as tyrant as others. In their writings they accuse him of pursuing Islam through soft methods. I recall an argument I had with an RSS leader in Ferozepore over Tipu Sultan, another tolerant Muslim king who had contributed to the freedom movement. He had fought against the British occupation of Southern India. But that leader was not willing to accept it. He continued to malign him as “barbaric”.
With an aim to convince Sikhs for their support for the cause of Ram Temple, these articles and editorials draw verses from the Sikh literature mainly Dasam Granth that refers to Lord Ram. In fact, parts of the text in the book suggest that Sikh Gurus were born in families which have roots in the clans of the descendants of Lord Ram’s sons. Dasam Granth is believed to have been written by Guru Gobind Singh, but many scholars disagree and insist that not the entire text is written by the Guru and contradicts the values of Sikh philosophy. They point out that Guru Gobind Singh had ordered the Sikhs that after him only Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs be followed as a guiding light. They therefore reject any attempt to promote a parallel scripture whose authenticity is also under question. They think that since Guru Gobind Singh’s retinue had many poets some passages in Dasam Granth cannot be attributed to the Guru as it is possible that they might have actually been written by the poets under him.
Clearly by invoking the fight of Babar with Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh’s connection with Lord Ram, the RSS wants the Sikhs to support them in their anti Muslim campaign. Significantly, one of the resolutions passed by Rashtriya Sikh Sangat calls for the construction of “magnificent” Ram temple in Ayodhya.
Giani Puran Singh, the former head of the Akal Takhat, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs attended a Rashtriya Sikh Sangat camp in 1997. Puran Singh had stirred the controversy by describing Gurus as the descendants of the sons of Lord Ram.
Interestingly, the editorials in Sangat Sansar also talk about the message of universal brotherhood preached by Guru Granth Sahib that includes hymns of the Hindu and Muslim saints, including those denounced as untouchables by the caste Hindus, still they repeatedly demonize Muslims and Christians. In one of the editorials, questions have been raised over celebrating Christmas on a day that coincides with the martyrdoms of the two sons of Guru Gobind Singh. The two were executed by the Islamist rulers and were handed over to them by a Hindu informer. There is no mention of the controversial role played by the Hindu informer in getting the young boys arrested. Another editorial tried to raise alarm over Christian missionaries spreading their base in Punjab and converting Sikhs.
The double speak of the RSS on the issue of religious minorities can also be gauged from a plain fact that it recognizes the anti Sikh massacre of 1984 as genocide, but remains indifferent towards the massacre of Muslims in 2002 and anti Christian violence of 2008.
Thousands of Sikhs were murdered across India in 1984 following the assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. She was murdered for sending troops to the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar in June that year to flush out handful of armed militants who had fortified the place of worship. The army operation had left many people dead and the buildings inside the complex heavily damaged. Indira Gandhi’s Congress party that claims to be secular was complicit in the mass murders of Sikhs.
In 2002, a similar pogrom was engineered against Muslims by the BJP government in Gujarat after a train bringing Hindu pilgrims from the disputed site of Ayodhya was burnt killing more than 50 passengers. The BJP government had blamed the Muslim fundamentalists for burning the train. It is pertinent to mention that there is no mention of the anti Muslim massacre on the website of the Muslim wing of the RSS.
If this is not enough, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat calls upon the Indian government to return the artifacts allegedly taken away by the Indian army during the military invasion on the Golden Temple complex. It has also been pleading for clemency to Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, a Sikh militant on the death row for his involvement in a bomb blast. Besides, it has been asking for amnesty to former Sikh militants settled abroad so that they could come back home without fear. They have been lobbying for waving the blacklist that bars these Sikhs outside India from visiting their home country. I had a chance to attend a public meeting that was organized by the BJP supporters in Vancouver in 2003 where the former Sikh separatist leaders were also in attendance. The picture of Bhullar whose wife is a Canadian was also at display. The meeting was held to announce the scrapping of the blacklist. The BJP led coalition government was in power at that time and had removed the names of many Sikhs in Canada from the so called blacklist maintained by Indian consulates.
So much so, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat has been advocating against racial profiling of Sikhs when Sikh militancy was at its peak between mid 1980s to mid 1990s. But such passion has never been displayed for Muslims by the RSS. On the contrary, they have not only been demonizing Muslims, but have been aggressively asking for the execution of men like Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon the two former militants, who were hung at different times to death in spite of campaigning to save their lives by human rights activists.
In one of the articles published by Sangat Sansar, there is a story about a Sikh human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra who was abducted by the Punjab police and murdered for investigating the cases of forced disappearances during Punjab militancy. The article tries to draw a parallel between the police repression and the repression of Sikhs under Islamist rule. In contrast, the RSS recently accorded a heroic welcome to a senior police officer from Gujarat who had been responsible for the murders of alleged Muslim militants in staged shootouts.
In 2008, the Hindu extremists had killed over 50 Christians in Orissa following the murder of a Hindu preacher. This was despite the fact that the Maoists had claimed the responsibility of the killing. A Sangat Sansar editorial blames the violence on Christian missionaries and creates fears about their activities in Punjab.
The politics behind the Sikh agenda of RSS can be interpreted in different ways. One interpretation is that it benefits the BJP in Punjab if it remains soft on Sikh issues to ensure long term Akali Dal support. Akali Dal and its followers see BJP as a trusted ally as against Congress which is seen by them as “enemy of the Sikhs”.
The other interpretation could be that it helps in improving the image of BJP abroad, where the Sikhs dominate the political landscape both outside and within the South Asian Diaspora. And if the Sikhs are on their side, it becomes easier for the BJP to challenge the world leaders who continue to criticize the current BJP government under Narendra Modi for growing religious intolerance and attacks on minorities in India. Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat when anti Muslim massacre broke out in the state. The human rights activists and survivours continue to allege his complicity in the violence.
For the record, the Sikhs and non Sikhs who are not familiar with the history suffice is to know that the RSS leader M.S. Golwalkar had cast aspersions on the patriotism of Sikhs who were asking for the reorganization of Punjabi speaking state during 1960s. In his book, Bunch of Thoughts, he accused them of playing into the hands of Pakistan by asking for a separate sectarian state under the garb of a linguistic Punjabi speaking province.
Another RSS leader Nanaji Deshmukh had glorified Indira Gandhi and justified the anti Sikh pogrom in his article Moments of Soul Searchingand squarely blamed the Sikh leadership for the massacre.
The former BJP minister Arun Shourie had written an article tilted, Lessons from the Punjab that was highly critical of the Akali Dal that was only seeking extra rights for Punjab. In this piece, he justified the army invasion of the Golden Temple complex and blamed the devastation entirely on the Sikh leadership.
It is widely accepted that the BJP supporters had also participated in the anti Sikh massacre and celebrated the invasion of the Golden Temple.
A controversial Sikh leader Prahlad Singh Chandok attended one of the conferences organized by the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat in 1998. Chandok had presented a robe of honour to Jagdish Tytler, a minister in the Congress government. Tytler was involved in the 1984 anti Sikh violence and had to resign after being indicted by a commission of enquiry.
In 1991, ten Sikh pilgrims were murdered by the police in Uttar Pradesh that was under the BJP rule after being branded as terrorists. All these actions contradict a Sangat Sansar article that says that the Sikhs had contributed more to the freedom struggle of India and a passage posted on Rashtriya Sikh Sangat website that blames the Congress government for promoting anti Sikh bias.
It’s laughable to read that the famous Sikh joke about their going crazy at 12 o’clock has been attributed to the Congress rule on the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat website, whereas the Prime Minister Narendra Modi once came under criticism for cracking a similar joke about the former Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Akali Dal leaders would like everyone to forget this, but the Sikh settlers from Punjab also came under attack in Gujarat when Modi was the Chief Minister of the state and was running for the office of Prime Minister in 2014. The violence was an outcome of the resistance of Sikh settlers against the attempts to acquire their lands.
One can figure out that the RSS Sikh agenda is based on deception and distorted history, and above all aimed at dividing minorities in India for which not only the Sikhs, but everyone needs to be vigilant. The Sikhs whose daily prayer ends with plea to the god for well being of the entire mankind in particular must be cautious of the bigotry of the RSS and the BJP towards all religious minorities. As the RSS is expected to grow under the current government a grassroots level fight against such force becomes necessary. It must be borne in mind that the BJP government in the past and at present has not given up its agenda to rewrite history being taught in public schools. A distorted history written from an ultra Hindu nationalist lens can impair young minds studying at public educational institutions. And that’s why it becomes important to challenge any attempt to take over public spaces by the RSS with a patronage of the state.
Make no mistakes. The RSS is not a friend of the Sikhs. It only needs one minority group on its side for political reasons. If the Congress according to them has been appeasing the Muslim minority all these years, how do they explain their stance on Sikh issues? If it suits them they would not shy attacking the Sikhs as aggressively as they have been attacking other minorities. Their attitude towards Sikhs when they were in conflict with the Indian state during mid 1980s is well documented. Their growing penetration in the Sikh community both in India and Canada needs to be checked. They claim to be respectful towards the message of universal brotherhood of Guru Granth Sahib, but hate Muslims and the Christians to the core. For them Guru Granth Sahib represents Akhand Bharat, a unified India and Khalsa is the army ofBharat Mata or Mother India. This kind of framing should alarm those who are concerned over the recent attacks on any voice of dissent by the RSS supporters in India. These voices are being frequently muzzled as “anti national.” It has become important for all the minorities, the oppressed communities and the real secularists to come together and join hands against the RSS. Often they disguise themselves as supporters of Hindu Sikh unity, but the question to ask them is why they don’t promote the unity of all communities in India if they really care for a strong Indian union? The basis of their whole philosophy of dividing people is actually much more seditious, but since they are running the current government with remote control nobody is questioning them. The most illustrative example of how the communities, including minorities are being pitted against each other by the RSS is my interview with a Delhi-based Akali Dal leader Avtar Singh Hit, who had participated in the Ram Temple campaign. On being confronted about this, he replied that some Muslim supporters of Congress also participated in the anti Sikh pogrom of 1984. This is exactly the challenge before us that how theocratic forces play on our fears for “others” and how we need to fail them in achieving their ulterior motives through such nefarious designs. How does it matter if some Muslims were part of the mobs used to kill Sikhs? It was not a Hindu-Sikh or for that matter Muslim-Sikh violence, it was a state sponsored carnage where Sikhs were victims and some good non Sikhs tried to help them. As part of his defence, Tytler - who was involved in the massacre claims that he was born in a Sikh family. Does this mean anything? Whether it was 1984 or 2002, the state needs to be blamed for mass murders of the members of the minority communities. At least learn from the Sikh gurus who never violated the rights of the Muslims in their fight against Islamist Empire and rather stood for the rights of the Hindus even as they were opposed to Hindu rituals and religious practices. The bottom line is that to save humanity we need to fight against divisive forces that are inimical to people’s unity.